WASHINGTON – Democrat Mark Kelly took his seat in the US Senate on Wednesday after state officials formalized his victory, shrinking Republican control of the chamber and highlighting his state’s shift from red to blue.
Kelly takes office more than a month ahead of others who won the Senate races in November, as it was a special election to complete the final two years of John McCain’s term in office, who died in 2018.
GOP Senate majority will drop to 52 members when Kelly replaces Republican Martha McSallywho was nominated to McCain’s seat but lost to Kelly in the election.
That will have little impact on Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s control of the chamber for the final month of this session of Congress. But it sets the stage for two crucial January 5 senatorial elections in Georgia.
If the Democrats win both elections, the Senate would be split 50-50 and new Vice President Kamala Harris would vote in the event of a tie.
Kelly was sworn in by Vice President Mike Pence, and both men wore masks and banged their arms in congratulations at the end of the oath. Among those watching from the visitors’ gallery were his wife, former Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Arizona, and Scott Kelly, his twin brother and fellow retired astronaut.
Kelly’s colleague in Arizona, Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema, held the Bible on which he was sworn. In what may be a Senate first for such ceremonies, Sinema, known for her dramatic fashion, wore a zebra-striped coat and had purple hair, or possibly a wig.
Kelly’s arrival in the Senate marks a political milestone for Arizona, which has two Democratic senators for the first time since January 1953. That’s when GOP Senator Barry Goldwater took office, barely a decade before becoming his party’s unsuccessful presidential candidate in 1964.
In further evidence of Arizona’s political change, the state backed President-elect Joe Biden last month, the first time a Democratic presidential candidate has carried it since 1996.
McSally was named to her seat in 2019 to replace McCain. His appointment only lasted until last month’s special election was officially certified, which happened this week. This paved the way for Kelly to take office and serve out the remainder of McCain’s six-year term, which means Kelly will be re-elected in 2022.
Kelly was skydiving a restless lame duck session in which lawmakers and President Donald Trump are so far deadlocked over whether to provide a pre-holiday COVID-19 relief package worth hundreds of billions of dollars. They are also trying to tackle year-end budget work and a defense policy bill.
In what was one of the nation’s most expensive Senate races, Kelly raised $89 million. That was second only to the $108 million raised by defeated South Carolina Democratic Senate candidate Jaime Harrison, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Republican Cory Gardner of Colorado and Democrat Doug Jones of Alabama were the only other Senate incumbents defeated last month.
The son of two police officers, Kelly is a retired astronaut who has completed four space missions, including aboard the International Space Station. He was also a Navy pilot who flew combat missions during Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s.
Giffords was seriously injured in a 2011 mass shooting in which six people were killed and a dozen others injured. She and Kelly became leading figures in unsuccessful efforts to lobby Congress to tighten gun control.
“Great day, great day,” Giffords told reporters afterwards.
Kelly is the fourth astronaut to be elected to Congress. John Glenn was a Democratic senator from Ohio and Harrison Schmitt was a GOP senator from New Mexico. Republican Jack Swigert was elected to the Colorado House, but died of cancer before taking office.
Kelly has portrayed himself as a problem-solving centrist during his campaign, and his narrow 2 percentage point victory over McSally suggests he will want to be part of the moderate wing of the Democrats.
In an interview, he praised the late Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, a political maverick whose seat he now holds and whose grave he visited Tuesday at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland .
He also voiced support for a push by congressional bipartisan moderates to pass a COVID-19 relief bill before Congress adjourns for the year. “I think something should happen now,” he said.
AP reporter Jonathan J. Cooper contributed from Phoenix, Arizona.
TUCSON, AZ – NOVEMBER 03: Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mark Kelly speaks to supporters during election night at the Congress Hotel in Tucson, Arizona. (Photo by Courtney Pedroza/Getty Images)
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